A Strong Premise: Your Story’s Hook
by Sabine Berlin with Angela Eschler
In part 1 of our articles defining “high concept” and what makes for a bestseller, we listed one requirement as a “hook that’s easy to describe.” Think of the hook as the heart of your story: your fresh idea + the main conflict your character faces. (You may also have heard that your “hook” is the opening of the story. For the term in that context, go here.) When it comes to your core marketing/story hook, making sure that hook is a “whole idea” (see part 1 of this series) and not just a seed of an idea is crucial to your hook qualifying as high concept. So, without further ado, check out Sabine’s article on how to get that whole idea—the heart of your story—right.
There is no agony like bearing an untold story within you.
My favorite time at preschool (yes, I’m still young enough to remember back that far) was story time. We’d pull out our story-time mats, turn the lights low, and lay down as the teachers told tales of dragons and wizards, swashbuckling pirates, and even presidents cutting down cherry trees. Some teachers were better storytellers; they used various voices, added plenty of description, and knew when to pause for special effect. But in the end, it was the story itself that drew me in. As writers, it’s not enough to know how to string together a beautiful sentence—although it certainly can’t hurt. We need to be able to tell a story.
Fiction or non, it’s a great story that will draw in the masses and make you a bestseller. (In case you missed it, see the critical first part of this article on how to do this.) What’s the secret? How does something like Twilight, which has been slammed by so many people as being horribly written (though it’s not as awful as some would claim), draw in millions of readers? Simple: Stephenie Meyer is not just a writer—she is a storyteller. We often joke about great writers who could make even the phone book interesting, but the truth is, all your magnificent metaphors and dazzling descriptions won’t sell your book if you don’t have a good story.
Agent and writer Lisa Cron said, “Story is the most powerful communication tool on the planet.” She’s right. Because story is how we give each other insights on how to survive this life—physically, socially, emotionally, and spiritually. From the caveman days to now, story is about navigating change and survival. So how do we “communicate” these insights with our eager readers? See the five questions to ask below.
Build a Great Premise
The five questions below will help you maximize the conflicts forcing your character to change, giving your story that ooohhh factor agents and readers are looking for.
1. Start with an idea. A What? We all have ideas floating around in our brains. Lots of those ideas stem from great what-if questions that we’d love to have answers for. What if I’d tried harder in school? What if I’d chosen a different job? What if I’d said no when he asked me to marry him? There are millions of ideas out there. Find one that you want to know the answer to. What if there was a cure for cancer? What if aliens invaded the planet? What if Facebook stopped working and I lost all my “friends”?
2. Choose and then introduce a character. A Who? Once you have an idea, you need a character who can experience that idea. Dozens of characters could experience it; but if you want a high-concept story, you want the most compelling one, the one who will imbue the story with the most conflict. Let’s go with the cure-for-cancer scenario. Several people could be your protagonist: The doctor who wants to make a name for himself by being the first to find a cure; the young woman who’s just been given three months to live; the father who will do anything to save his dying child. The character you choose should be the person who’ll be most affected by the story. Lisa Cron summed it up perfectly:
Story is not about the plot. Story is about how the plot affects the protagonist.”
When choosing your character, find the person you can relate to, or the one who most intrigues you—the one you can envision best in the throes of high-stakes conflict.
3. Give them a conflict. A How? How will your character’s world change? What beliefs, behaviors, and other things will your character have to wrestle with and overcome in order to survive the day and a new, changed life? Conflict is key to everything. Without conflict, your character doesn’t grow, doesn’t get propelled from everyday life to high-concept story. Your character needs conflict in order to react to it. Your readers need conflict in order to place themselves in your protagonist’s shoes and think about what they would do in the situation. Choosing the right conflict(s) is something that takes careful thought and some time, but it will be the secret sauce that propels your book to the bestseller lists. Readers don’t become the character if the only decision that character faces is what to wear to her best friend’s wedding. We become the character when we have to go to the best friend’s wedding and watch her marry the man of our dreams. Conflict creates story.
4. Become the annoying “why” kid. A Why? You know that kid—the one who never stops asking questions. Why is the sky blue? Why did dinosaurs die? Why can birds fly? If you’ve ever been around that kid, you probably never want to hear the word why again. But kids are smart: Why is the key ingredient to any great story. So act like a kid and bombard your idea and character with the same question. Why does this conflict affect your character? Why does it make him change, grow? Why does it have to be a sweet, innocent Hobbit who throws the ring in Mount Doom? Why will that make the best story? Why will he grow? Why will that choice cause him the greatest internal conflict?
5. Time to take charge. A When? Once you have an idea, character, and conflict, and you’ve asked why until you’d rather swim with sharks than ask it again, it’s time to pick when your story should start. This is where many writers make their first big mistake—something we see a lot of. Too often, writers start the story well in the past, thinking they need to build up the where, how, why, and who in full detail before they can introduce the when. Don’t do this. Your story should start at the moment the protagonist is pulled into a situation from which she can’t return. Brandon Sanderson’s Elantris starts at the moment our hero is damned for all eternity. It says so in the first sentence. There aren’t chapters of backstory introducing what the Shaod is or what life has been like for the Prince before that point. (Even good prologues or “trick” beginnings illuminate the key conflict to come, pulling the readers into a situation from which they can’t return.)
If the conflict could wreak havoc at any point in your character’s life, ask why again and choose (create) the point with the most possible pressure so you can start the clock ticking. A well-drawn story begins with this type of conflict, the one that will produce the most trouble in your character’s life—including pressure to resolve it soon, or else.
If you’ve seriously asked and answered these five questions, only then are you ready to put the rest of that fancy word knowledge into play. The process of asking—and answering—these questions is more valuable than actually putting the words on paper. Author Marie de Nevaud said:
You don’t actually have to write anything until you’ve thought it out. This is an enormous relief, and you can sit there searching for the point at which the story becomes a toboggan and starts to slide.”
Find your premise, and the words will find you. And if you’ve already written your story but aren’t sure your premise is strong enough, never fear—we’re here to help. We don’t want to see you in the “agony [of] bearing an untold story within.” It’s never too late to switch your story into high-concept mode.
Do This Now
- Using your current story idea, ask the five W’s above. Your premise may change a bit as you ask these questions, and that’s okay. Better to have it change now instead of 356 pages from now. Don’t worry if you’re not an outliner. You don’t need to have every single scene planned, but knowing the high-concept, bestselling premise up front will save you weeks—even months—of setbacks and rewrites.
- Ask yourself why a hundred times. Don’t settle for good or even great answers; keep asking until you find an amazing answer, then ask yourself why one more time.
- If your story could go several ways, quiz your alpha and beta readers. Ask whether they’d rather hear a story about A or B, this character or that? If you want a high-concept idea, go with the masses.
- Watch/read great stories and then dissect them. Identify the ooohhh factor, that high-concept premise—not the plot, but the five W’s that maximize the conflicts forcing the character to change (i.e., face physical, emotional, social, or spiritual survival). Identify what makes the protagonist someone you relate to and care about—a compelling, changing person (even if that “person” is an elf, an alien, or a dragon). In short, someone you must talk to other readers about.
Your turn: Name a book whose premise you go ga-ga over. What did it teach you about navigating change in a dangerous world?
Sabine is an avid reader of everything from Asimov to Zusak. She has a degree in history, writes YA fiction, and was selected to attend Orson Scott Card’s Literary Bootcamp, where she studied writing and critiquing. She has been with Eschler Editing since 2012. She invites you to visit her blog.
Angela Eschler is the founder of Eschler Editing and has worked in publishing for fourteen years, both in house and as a freelance editor for several publishers, as well as with individual authors (both traditionally published and self-published) and businesses and academic organizations.